Marianas Variety

By Zaldy Dandan

SAIPAN, CNMI (July 25)—As power rates go up, so does the anxiety generated by the administration’s pronouncements of layoffs and a host of other slapdash measures pending in the Legislature, including further reductions in payments to government employees. Vendor payments have been put on hold, jeopardizing the private sector’s ability to pay its own employees. Now suspending vendor payments sounds like a common sense approach to cash shortfalls, but it isn’t. In adopting this approach the administration 1) thumbs its nose at its own contractual obligations, which remain binding even if the government is having a hard time paying its bills; and 2) cuts back the money circulating in the economy, shriveling up what remains of the economy. All these policy decisions, moreover, deal a death blow to what remains of public confidence in government and on the economy’s ability to turn around.

The public is beginning to understand that utility problems and the upcoming rate hikes are not the result of fuel cost increases, but years of mismanagement and bad procurement practices that have raised the cost of doing business. Electricity costs are not this high in, for example, Hawaii. Even if there are more consumers on line, their power bills have not gone up at the same rate as ours has — not even close — and Hawaii, along with other jurisdictions, are similarly affected by rising fuel costs.

In a related matter, there is, to be sure, no doubt that government employee benefits grew perversely out of proportion with the individual contributions into the pension system. But for the government to neglect its own obligations is reckless and puts the entire program at risk. The administration wants to rid itself of as many financial obligations as possible, which is a reasonable position, but it should not be allowed to shirk its prior obligations just because it is having a hard time.

Government officials should be credited with making some of these tough decisions, decisions their predecessors avoided, but the administration continues to contradict its own edicts by continuing to hire government employees. No doubt many of these positions are critical to government operations, but many more are not.

Ultimately, what makes everyone nervous is this: there is no grand plan. No one knows what other steps are being contemplated by the administration or its rubber-stamp Legislature. One after another, different plans are introduced by lawmakers, and each is passed with lightning speed whether good or bad, whether public input is sought or not, and whether it will produce positive results — or simply divert the commonwealth down yet another difficult path.

July 25, 2006

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